Rough Waters Ahead

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been essential to cleaning up and protecting water quality in the Susquehanna River basin, but the Trump administration has proposed deep cuts to the EPA’s budget. Rough Waters Ahead provides case studies of how the EPA has been critical to ensuring clean water in the Susquehanna River basin, and why the proposed budget could undermine the agency’s ability to deter pollution and restore iconic waterbodies such as the Susquehanna River.

Katherine Eshel

Policy Analyst

The Susquehanna River is critical to the health and welfare of our families, our communities, and wildlife. The Susquehanna River flows from tributaries in New York state and western Pennsylvania to the Chesapeake Bay, supplying drinking water to more than 6 million Pennsylvanians.

Today, the Susquehanna River basin’s state parks and scenic rivers provide some of Pennsylvania’s most cherished places to swim, boat and fish some of the nation’s best smallmouth bass fisheries. However, the Susquehanna River’s beauty masks historic and ongoing pollution problems. Industrial contamination and the legacy of coal mining have contributed to the degradation of the watershed, and agricultural pollution, wastewater treatment and urban runoff have emerged as major threats to clean water in the basin.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been essential to efforts to clean up the Susquehanna River and restore the watershed to health – supporting and working with state and local efforts to keep pollution out of our waterways, hold polluters accountable, restore degraded waterways to health, and study and monitor the Susquehanna River basin to ensure its future health and safety.

That progress is now in jeopardy. The Trump administration has proposed deep and devastating cuts to the EPA’s budget. Even if the president’s proposed cuts are scaled back, they would still have profound, negative impacts on the agency’s ability to deter pollution from industrial facilities, agriculture, sewage treatment plants, runoff and other sources, while undercutting efforts to restore iconic bodies of water such as the Susquehanna River.

America should not go back to the way it used to be, when the Susquehanna River was used as a dumping ground for coal tar, metals, sewage and many other pollutants without recourse. We need a strong EPA with sufficient resources to support local cleanup efforts and to partner with states and communities to protect and restore the Susquehanna River Basin.

The Susquehanna River basin is being protected and restored to health with funding and effort from the EPA. The EPA has worked to:

  • Clean up mine pollution in Miller Run in Huntingdon County: In the 1990s, Miller Run in Huntingdon County was so acidic and polluted with heavy metals from acid mine drainage that fish could only be found upstream of mine pollution sources. The Shoup’s Run Watershed Association received funding from the EPA and other sources to support their efforts to clean up the stream and restore Miller Run to a healthy native brook trout fishery.
  • Support local initiatives to restore Pierceville Run in York County: In the 1990s, Pierceville Run, a tributary of the South Branch of Codorus Creek, was found to be so polluted from agricultural runoff and damaged by livestock trampling that in 2002 the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) classified it as “impaired” – finding that it was too polluted to meet its designated use by aquatic life. The EPA provided financial support to the Izaak Walton League of America (IWLA) for its assessment of the South Branch of Codorus Creek and its tributaries’ health and to help restore the Pierceville Run. Thanks to IWLA and their partners’ efforts, Pierceville Run’s health is steadily improving, as both sediment and phosphorus loads have declined by at least 39 percent; by 2012, the state began to remove portions of the stream from its impaired waters list.
  • Developed cleanup plans for the Chesapeake Bay that drive pollution reductions in the Susquehanna River: The EPA has set basin-wide limits on nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution as part of its work to restore the Chesapeake Bay; this program requires bay states, including Pennsylvania, to cut pollution – helping to save the bay while improving conditions in the Susquehanna River. Despite some signs of progress, however, Pennsylvania is falling behind on its reduction targets, and further action is needed to fulfill its commitments.
  • Provide tools that protect drinking water from chemical spills: In June 2015, a fire at the Miller Chemical fertilizer plant in Adams County resulted in the discharge of flame retardant foam and fertilizer compounds into a tributary of Conewago Creek, from which the town of New Oxford draws its drinking water. Emergency response teams used a tool developed with EPA funding to track the spill’s contamination and protect the residents of New Oxford, as well as other municipalities downstream.
  • Stop agricultural pollution in Lancaster County: The EPA found that an egg and dairy farm in the Manheim area was discharging raw manure and contaminated water to a tributary of Chiques Creek without a permit. The EPA ordered the farm to comply with its obligations under the Clean Water Act and fined the farm.
  • Reduce pollution from raw sewage in the Susquehanna River: From 2007 to 2015, the City of Harrisburg dumped 8 million gallons of raw sewage into the Susquehanna River and Paxton Creek, potentially endangering public health and creating unhealthy river conditions. The EPA and PA DEP reached a settlement with the city and its sewage utility that will help renew Harrisburg’s aging sewage infrastructure and stem the flow of pollution, as the sewer utility invests $82 million to improve system operations, upgrade its wastewater treatment plant for the first time since 1976, and develop green stormwater infrastructure practices, like rain gardens, to help reduce stormwater runoff.
  • Support research to understand the human health effects of water contamination due to fracking: The EPA is funding a team of Yale researchers to investigate the relationship between water contamination due to fracking and adverse birth outcomes, such as preterm births or birth defects, in Susquehanna County, as well as five other counties in Pennsylvania and Ohio. The team will ultimately create a tool to help local health officials identify which homes may be more vulnerable to drinking water contamination and target interventions to ensure their access to safe drinking water.

Table ES-1. How Clean Water in the Susquehanna River Basin Depends on the EPA

The Susquehanna River Basin Is Cleaner Because the EPA: The EPA Continues to Protect Clean Water by:
Funded a local association’s efforts to clean up acid mine drainage in the Miller Run watershed in Huntingdon County Supporting local partnerships that restore the health of the Susquehanna River basin’s waterways
Funded the restoration of Pierceville Run and the South Branch of Codorus Creek from the effects of agricultural runoff in York County Funding restoration of streams and creeks across the region
Set limits on nutrient and sediment pollution to Chesapeake Bay from its tributaries, including the Susquehanna River Enforcing pollution limits and encouraging best management practices in the Susquehanna River basin to clean up the Chesapeake Bay
Funded the development of a tool that helped protect the drinking water of New Oxford in Adams County from contamination during the Miller Chemical spill on Conewago Creek Funding projects to prevent pollution and supervise public water systems
Ordered a Lancaster County farm to stop discharging manure and wastewater from an egg-laying and dairy farm to a tributary of Chiques Creek without a permit Ensuring compliance with pollution standards to limit releases of nitrogen, phosphorus and pathogens to waterways
Reduced discharges of raw sewage into the Susquehanna River from municipal treatment plants Ensuring compliance with planned infrastructure upgrades to limit releases of raw sewage
Supported research to understand the potential impacts of resource extraction in Susquehanna County and three other Pennsylvania counties on drinking water and newborns’ health Supporting research into new pollution control methods and the effects of water pollution on human health

The Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the EPA budget put these and other critical functions in danger – threatening the future health of the Susquehanna River.

  • Under the administration’s proposal, water-related programs run directly by the EPA would be slashed by 34 percent, hobbling efforts to prevent runoff pollution, monitor water quality, establish pollution limits, protect watersheds and wetlands, and pursue polluters.
  • In addition, many federal grants from the EPA to state governments for clean water would be slashed by 30 percent or more, including water pollution control grants that help fund the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, an interstate agency that coordinates the efforts of Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and the federal government to manage the basin’s water resources. The proposal would also end grants to state governments and tribal agencies to address pollution from farms, stormwater runoff and other dispersed sources – making it more difficult for already cash-strapped state agencies to do their jobs and delaying important locally led cleanup efforts.
  • Research and development funding would be cut by 47 percent, limiting support for scientists, residents and local communities trying to understand the ever-changing threats facing their waterways. For instance, the EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources research program, which supports science and technology research to protect drinking water, would be cut by more than a third.
  • Overall, the EPA budget would be reduced by 31 percent.

Even if Congress makes some of these budget cuts less drastic, the Susquehanna River basin will still suffer without full funding of EPA programs.

Figure ES-1. Estimated EPA Grant Funding Losses to Pennsylvania if Trump Administration’s Proposed Budget Is Enacted (Figure Shows Cuts to Selected Programs Based on Most Recent Year for Which Data Are Available)

Note: Estimates are calculated assuming EPA budget cuts affect states by the same percentage. Reductions are based on grants from most recent fiscal year. “Water pollution control grants” are Section 106 grants, slated for a 30 percent cut. “Nonpoint pollution control grants” are Section 319 grants, cut entirely in the administration’s proposed budget. “Drinking water protection and enforcement grants” are Public Water System Supervision grants, cut by 30 percent.

The job of cleaning up and protecting the Susquehanna River basin is not done. Continuing pollution from agriculture, industry and mining – along with the emergence of new pollution threats from new classes of industrial and household chemicals – call for continued vigilance and action. Only a well-funded EPA can continue the region’s legacy of progress in cleaning up the Susquehanna River basin and ensure that its streams and rivers are healthy and safe for us and future generations to enjoy.


Katherine Eshel

Policy Analyst

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